November 23, 2021

Vaccines, masks required in the Roundhouse during upcoming legislative sessions

Laura Paskus

The upcoming legislative special session for redistricting and next year’s regular legislative session will be open to the public—but they must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter and wear masks while in the Roundhouse.

That’s according to the Legislative Council Service, which announced the changes on Tuesday.

“Given the high number of COVID-19 cases across the state and the strain this continues to put on state resources, it is incumbent on us to protect everyone in the Capitol complex while conducting the state’s business,” Legislative Council Director Raúl Burciaga said in a statement. “I believe the measures being taken for the special and regular sessions will allow for the work to get done while greatly minimizing the risk for COVID spread.”

This currently would not apply to legislators, NM Political Report confirmed.

The 2021 legislative session took place behind closed doors because of the threat of COVID-19, with some members participating remotely. Members of the public were able to participate in public comment through Zoom.

While an official date for redistricting has yet to be set, it’s expected to happen around the first full week of December. The process is slower than in past decennial redistricting processes because of a delay in data from the U.S. Census Bureau and a new independent redistricting committee, which approved suggested maps for the Legislature to consider.

Other COVID-19 precautions will include no displays in the rotunda, no tours conducted in the Roundhouse and no use of pages by House and Senate members.

Democratic leaders praised the measure.

“With these protections against Covid-19 in place for the upcoming legislative sessions, we are ensuring the best protections for the public who wish to participate in the legislative process and for our staff who do critical work,” Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said. “We are following CDC and OSHA recommendations based on the science and medical community’s advice. We look forward to having safe, productive sessions to get important work done for the State and New Mexicans.”

Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said that virtual participation would continue and that the new rules would “allow for the safe reopening of our state’s Capitol to all New Mexicans so they have the access they deserve to their elected leaders and the legislative process.”

“The past two years have brought much change due to the pandemic and security concerns related to dangerous partisan rhetoric and the January 6 insurrectionists, but none of this will stop us from doing the people’s work,” he said.

Republican leadership criticized the health measures.

“The public should find it eerily unnerving that the same politicians who have held public meetings in the Capitol and across the state, including a climate summit, now want to again limit public participation in our upcoming legislative sessions,” House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said.

House Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, also criticized the new rules.

“This is not a COVID driven policy. If it was, the clear evidence of vaccinated individual’s ability to spread the virus would negate the reasoning for the rule,” Baca said. “Instead, COVID has proven to be an effective means by which the political elites can justify their power grabs and limit public access and participation.”

New Mexico is experiencing the highest numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in months and as of Tuesday had the fourth-highest rate of new cases per capita by state and territory, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker.

The regular legislative session will begin on Jan. 18, and end on Feb. 17. The 30-day session will be restricted to topics approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and issues regarding public money.

The Legislative Council previously set a policy that would not allow members of the public to enter the Roundhouse with weapons and to go through a metal detector or agree to a bag search to enter.

Update: Added responses from legislative leaders.